HARARE – An affable unionist, Tsvangirai rose through the ranks of a once-tame trade union to become the first Zimbabwe opposition leader with a credible chance of unseating the veteran iron-fisted ruler.
By the time he turns 56 on Monday, Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), should have a sense of whether Zimbabwe’s voters are ready to dump the man who led them to liberation from Britain in 1980 and elect a younger man.
The few opinion polls published in Zimbabwe show Tsvangirai well ahead of the 84-year-old Mugabe, with an online poll by The Zimbabwean revealing that he would win a majority of 51,5 percent of popular vote, although the poll was not truly representative. The outcome of the March 29 presidential election, marred by a rising tide of political violence, intimidation and judicial constraints on the opposition, is impossible to predict.
Unless Mugabe rigs furiously, Tsvangirai together with Simba Makoni will emerge with the biggest majority and are likely to go into a runoff, political commentator Ronald Shumba said.
In an echo of concerns voiced around the world, he added: ‘Of course, there is no reason to believe that the votes cast will be the result actually announced.
The United States ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee warned last week that ominous signs of cheating by President Mugabe’s government were already present ahead of the crucial poll.Â
Tsvangirai’s background could scarcely be more different to his rival’s. While Mugabe led the dominant military force in the long war against white rule, Tsvangirai was home supporting his family.
While Mugabe boasts a string of university degrees, Tsvangirai, now a father of six, is self-taught beyond a basic high school education. He is happily married to Susan.
Tsvangirai, the son of a bricklayer, cut his political teeth in the labour movement while working as a foreman at the Trojan Nickel Mine in rural Bindura for 10 years.
In 1988, he became full-time secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, leading the federation from an alliance with Mugabe’s dominant Zanu (PF) to independence.
He was jailed by Mugabe’s government for six weeks in 1989 on charges of spying for South Africa and the MDC claims he has survived four state-sponsored assassination attempts, including his brutal assult in police custody on March 11 last year.
In December 1997, Tsvangirai delivered his first serious challenge and Mugabe’s first significant political defeat.
He led a series of strikes against tax increases and twice forced Mugabe to withdraw announced hikes. He also made Mugabe abandon a planned special tax to fund grants to veterans of the liberation war against Britain.
Taking much of the labour movement with him, Tsvangirai helped to found the MDC in 1999. In February 2000, the movement showed its strength by engineering Mugabe’s first poll defeat – the rejection in a national referendum of proposed constitutional changes that would further have entrenched Mugabe’s power.
In June of that year, despite killings and intense police harassment, the MDC stunned the ruling party by winning 57 of the 120 seats at stake in a parliamentary election.
Now Tsvangirai is going for the big prize, but political analysts say policy and detail is where the man who captivates the public with powerful speeches is weakest.
His judgment has also been questioned in the wake of last month’s failure by his party to join forces with the rival Arthur Mutambara-led MDC to mount a formidable challenge against Mugabe.
His party’s decision to go along with Constitution Amendment No. 18 which has helped Mugabe perpetuate his tyranny through the retention of biased electoral systems has also courted the ire of civics.
People say we were naive, Tsvangirai told The Zimbabwean. But it was a negotiation, you give and take.
If he wins the presidency despite intimidation and legal ploys to keep opposition voters away from the polls, Tsvangirai should be able to use presidential powers to appoint legislators and senators to take control of the 210-seat parliament and the 93-member Senate.
His party’s economic stabilisation and recovery plan, contained in the party’s 33-page manifesto launched last week, includes a 100-day programme to halt the country’s plunge into deeper recession.
The programme includes commitments to most of the macro-economic mantras of the globalising world – debt reduction, tightly controlled state expenditure, liberalised foreign exchange controls and free market disciplines.
It commits the party to a people-driven constitution making process, restoration of the rule of law, continue land reform in a non-partisan way, create jobs, expand infrastructure and tackle the massive domestic and foreign debt.
Tsvangirai has declined to commit himself on the future of Mugabe and the country’s current rulers if he wins.
We have to look positively beyond Mugabe. Mugabe is history, he said in a typical response to a question on whether he would prosecute the man who has led Zimbabwe for 28 years.